(March 28, 2013 / JNS) The Palestinian Authority’s removal of a monument showing all of Israel as “Palestine” from the route on which President Barack Obama traveled during his recent visit to Bethlehem was consistent with the longstanding practice of totalitarian regimes attempting to fool foreign visitors.
This propaganda technique is sometimes called Potemkinism. The name refers to Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin, the Russian cabinet minister who is said to have constructed fake villages to impress the Czarina Catherine II during her visit to the Crimea in 1787.
Josef Stalin used such tactics to great effect. In the 1920s and 1930s, many Western visitors to the Soviet Union were taken to see Bolshevo, supposedly an example of the USSR’s progressive new prison system. Future British Labor Party leader Harold Laski, among others, was deeply impressed by the prison without walls or guards, where prisoners supposedly were educated and inspired to become new men.
George Bernard Shaw actually claimed that the only problem in dealing with a Bolshevo prisoner was “inducing him to come out at all” when his term concluded. Ella Winter, the journalist-activist (and wife of famed muckraker Lincoln Steffens) wrote glowingly of the “kindly-faced” and “easy-going” prison director. Too late did the Kremlin’s early Western admirers come to realize that Bolshevo had been created for their consumption, filled with informers whose reward was to live in the sham prison, and in no way typical of the harsh jails and slave labor camps of the Soviet gulag.
Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow, a study of the Soviet-created famine in the Ukraine, quotes eyewitnesses describing how the authorities quickly transformed one small farming village into an acceptable site for Westerners to view in the 1930s.
The residents were “forbidden to leave their houses,” except for a handful of peasants who were given new clothes before the visitors arrived. “Furniture from the regional theater in Brovary was brought… Curtains and drapes were brought from Kiev, also tablecloths.” Animals were quickly slaughtered, crates of beer arrived, and a telephone switchboard operator appeared. “All the corpses and starving peasants were removed from the highways in the surrounding countryside…”
Adolf Hitler likewise often engaged in Potemkin-style deception. American visitors to Germany in the 1930s were shown only that which reflected well on the Nazi regime. The U.S. political newsweekly The Nation complained in 1933 that it was “difficult to restrain the silly people who after a week or two in Germany, during which they have seen no Jews beaten up in the streets, go back to their own countries and declare that the stories told in the papers about Germany are all untrue.”
In the weeks preceding the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the Nazis removed copies of Der Stuermer and other anti-Semitic literature from newsstands, lest foreigners see the truce face of the Third Reich. To a significant extent, these deceptions worked. The New York Times reported to its readers that the Nazis displayed “good will” and “flawless hospitality.” The Associated Press predicted that the Berlin games would help “assure peace” in Europe.
The impact of this Nazi propaganda effort reached all the way to the White House. American Jewish leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt shortly after the Olympics, wrote to a colleague: “Then [the President] said this disturbing thing: ‘I have just seen two people who have toured through Germany. They tell me that they saw that the Synagogues were crowded and apparently there is nothing very wrong in the situation at present’… I then explained to [FDR] how grave conditions were. Told him of some recent happenings in Germany… Cited other examples of the ruthless and continuing oppression of the Jews. He listened carefully; but I could see that the tourists, (whoever they were, the Lord bless them not) had made an impression upon him.”
Unsavory regimes have much to gain by creating political mirages for the benefit of foreign visitors. The Nazis wanted to improve their international image so as to undercut anti-German boycott campaigns and divert attention from Hitler’s military buildup. The Soviets wanted to improve trade relations with the West and promote Communism as the ideal system of government.
For the Palestinian Authority, too, much was at stake in the recent visit by Obama, as the subsequent announcement of $500-million in U.S. aid to the PA made clear. Temporarily hiding its map of Palestine, from a president who once denounced such maps as the work of those who “don’t even acknowledge Israel’s existence,” was a small sacrifice for a reward of that magnitude.
Dr. Rafael Medoff’s latest book is ‘FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith,’ available from Amazon.